Touch Press and Stephen Hough team up for a groundbreaking musical experience
I recall a number of years ago seeing a teenager on a dancing game in a seaside arcade. As coloured lines and spots hurtled down a screen towards him at a startling rate, he moved his hands and feet accordingly with scarily skilful and energetic accuracy. Well, now you can imagine one of our finest pianists, Stephen Hough, doing that very thing. After a fashion. Seated at a Steinway. Playing Liszt. But still, it’s probably the closest you’ll ever get to see him playing at the end of the pier.
The feature is part of the impressive new app from Touch Press, in which Hough performs, explores and explains Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B Minor, arguably the most epic masterpiece among Romantic piano sonatas. Touch Press has form here – you may recall their recent app devoted to Beethoven’s Symphony No 9 (see my recent blog), or their Orchestra app. This latest release, however, has the intensive focus of the first of their cultural apps, that dedicated to TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, more so in fact. As Touch Press puts it: ‘users are invited to experience a single piece through the mind and fingers of a single performer.’
Like those other apps, this is a premium-priced product at £9.99/$13.99. For that you get a newly recorded performance of the Sonata, characteristically beautifully and thoughtfully played by Hough. You can watch the performance from multiple angles: from the side, as if from a particularly plum seat in an intimate venue like the Wigmore Hall; staring straight down at the keyboard, as if dangling from the ceiling like a broadcast mic; and a close-up of Hough’s face, as if you were, er, the score. You can see all these simultaneously, one choice of camera angle bigger than the other, while the score scrolls along the bottom - or any shot can be viewed full screen. And then there’s the NoteFall view mentioned above, which offers an immediate graphic representation of where the notes are, their sheer number and whether scales or long chords - a cloud of colours fired at Hough’s hands with often scattergun intensity.
There’s also a commentary by Hough, either as subtitles or speech. It’s scholarly, but also personal, as if he’s sitting beside you during a performance leaning over every bar or so and gently explaining what’s going on. Themes, motifs, key and tempo changes are all included, and there’s some memorably illustrative whimsical reflections. A clutch of notes borrowed by Liszt from elsewhere in the piece is ‘a tiny little scrap, like a bit of cloth left over from making the suit, that you’re able to do something with the sleeve with it, or a special patch on the pocket.’ There’s more analysis to be found in texts by Charlotte Gardner covering Liszt’s life and the structure of the Sonata’s score, as well as a series of films of Hough demonstrating specific moments at the keyboard.
Is it a performance with an extended multimedia booklet note attached? Or is it an encyclopaedic exploration of a work with an illustrative performance attached? Well, neither, and both. It is, in fact, a classical musical app: fast evolving into a genre in its own right. Touch Press’s Beethoven Ninth app has been downloaded a staggering 500,000 times since its launch in May. All this is very exciting news indeed for the future of classical music.